Interview with Ingrīda Kariņa-Bērziņa, Partner at COBALT’s Latvia office and head of its IP & IT practice group
1. Tell us about your firm
COBALT is the largest full-service independent business law firm operating in the Baltics and Belarus. We have 180 lawyers in four office in Estonia (Tallinn), Latvia (Riga), Lithuania (Vilnius) and Belarus (Minsk). Our Tallinn office was established as early as 1991. We are consistently ranked in the top tier across our practice groups (M&A/Corporate, Dispute Resolution, Banking and Finance, Employment, Competition, Real Estate, Tax and Intellectual Property/IT).
Unusually for our market, our lawyers specialize in no more than 1-2 areas, and we invest in a lot of training. As a result, we offer depth and we advise in many matters of first impression. Our firm’s focus is on large-scale, complex transactions and disputes. Additionally, we stay a step ahead with specialized offerings: we act in constitutional courts, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice; represent in white-collar crime, complex immigration and political asylum matters; advise in fintech and Big Data matters (including a bitcoin IPO). Most recently, we have formalized our startup / venture capital offering.
Since our firm and my legal practice span our four jurisdictions, my replies will reflect this.
2. Have you ever worked as a lawyer abroad?
I am a native of Wilmington, Delaware, and earned my J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. I started my legal career in Philadelphia at Ballard Spahr LLP. I relocated to Latvia in 2005 and requalified as a sworn attorney and additionally qualified as a Latvian and EU trademark and design attorney. However, I still maintain my U.S. bar memberships (Pennsylvania and New Jersey).
3. How would you describe the current business climate in your country?
After economic shocks in 1998 and again in 2008, Latvia and the Baltics generally are understandably cautious. However, objectively the business climate is very good. Our economies are growing at over 3% per year, unemployment is at historic lows, investment is stable. In a European context the Baltic countries are lightly taxed and moderately regulated, and practice fiscal discipline.
Latvia was ranked #14 overall and #6 among EU countries in the World Bank Doing Business study last year. In recent years, numerous government initiatives have aimed to stimulate the economy and attract investment. One of the latest examples is our unique Law on Startups (in force from January 1, 2017), which create special support mechanisms, including tax breaks, for high-growth companies.
Three areas remain challenging in Latvia. The first is a tight labour market. The second is a decade-long effort to improve the insolvency system. The third is tax reform, which will come into force in 2018. Business is quite weary of the lack of stability in tax policy. The COBALT guide to Latvian tax reform can be found here .
4. What are the main opportunities and challenges for foreign law firms in your country?
The main challenge is the small size of our market. The three Baltic countries have a combined population of around 6 million; Belarus adds another 9.5 million. This size is usually considered too small to work in a global firm model, and of course each of our countries has a distinct language, distinct legal system, separate bar memberships.
The opportunity is that it is relatively easy to set up and operate law firms here. The relevant authorities are approachable, there are incredibly capable lawyers on the market and law is a top professional aspiration for young people.
5. What advice would you give to companies new to the country?
First of all, contact COBALT. Secondly – networking. The foreign chambers of commerce are a great place to make friends, do business and stay informed. I am a board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, which organizes around 50 events each year. The British, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Canadian, Swiss, German and other chambers of commerce are all active in the Baltics.
6. What opportunities for co-operations are there between your country and UK law firms?
Very often, UK law firms operate as global outside counsel and instruct local law firms, such as COBALT, to advise on local law aspects of transactions or represent in disputes. We also see a number of Baltic or Belarus based clients expand to the UK and ask us for recommendations for counsel in the UK. This cooperation is quite intense already.
7. Do clients prefer smaller local firms or larger international networks?
The legal market is predominantly local or regional. There are several firms like COBALT that operate in all three Baltic countries (plus Belarus, in our case), but a very limited presence of international networks. Historically, the top end of the legal market in the Baltic countries has been dominated by local (Pan-Baltic, Scandinavian) law firms, with regional but not global scope. Clients everywhere are value conscious and local Baltic hourly rates are very competitive.
8. What are the practice areas you definitely think a European firm would find business in?
Based on recent harmonization and unification of European financial and IP regulation, these two could be my frontrunners.
9. What recent legal developments you have seen in your country?
In Latvia, the 2017 Law on Startups and the 2018 tax reform. In Lithuania, 2017 saw historic reforms of employment law. In Estonia, immigration law was amended in 2017 to permit start-up visas. In Belarus, a “Google tax” on Internet transactions is expected in 2018.
10. Are you aware of any changes that may affect or changes that took place and had an impact on the profession and practice rights in your country?
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all members of the EU since 2004 and the professional reciprocity principles fully apply here. Our “advocate” license does not distinguish between barristers and solicitors, and full local bar membership is limited to those with local language fluency. However, non-advocates can quite easily give legal advice and even represent in court.
11. Finally, what are your recommendations for visitors to your country?
In the summertime, our pristine Baltic Sea sandy beaches are not to be missed. Huge sand dunes are the attraction at Nida, on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania. For swimming and sunning, the Gulf of Riga is an easy day trip from the capital.
The Baltic capital cities are magnificent. Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga all have medieval Old Town centres with charming cobbled lanes. Riga is known for its Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, restored to its early 20th century splendour and crowned by our fairy-tale National Opera House, where you can enjoy world-class performances (at small-town prices).
Finally, no visit to the Baltics would be complete without a sauna experience. There is even a floating sauna on the river Daugava in the middle of Riga. Best enjoyed with friends.
These views are the views of the author and not those of the Law Society.